Do You Deserve Better from Your Cell Phone Company?

Do You Deserve Better from Your Cell Phone Company?

Your cell phone doesn’t work as well as you’d like.

I know, I don’t even know you! But I’m willing to bet I’m right (and you’re nodding your head at me right now, ruefully). I say this from personal experience, having lived all over the place and used just about every cell phone carrier. I could set them up like the villains in a comic book.

The Ooze of Mist: This supervillain resides in the coastal mountain ranges between Vernonia and Astoria, Oregon, centered around the town of Mist (where it is, indeed, misty all the time). The Hood-to-Coast Relay goes through Mist, with some 20, 000 runners and walkers from all over the world. The regular guy running with the elite of the elite!

The cell phone coverage in this area is so bad that the race organizers print up warnings in the guidebook, and runners are regularly left stranded at an exchange point when their calls and texts to their teammates (“he’s running a screaming 4:40 mile pace!”) don’t go through. I know this isn’t the only spot like this in the nation; millions of you make plans ahead of time to connect once you get past a known dead area, or stop on the side of the freeway to call before you enter a dead zone.

The IKEA Basement Blocker: You’re at IKEA, at one of those hours-long excursions and you want to know what kind of lightbulbs you need for your KHRLKU lamp. (Yes, I made that up.) You call your beloved, waiting behind at home for some meatballs, hex tool at the ready. Rejected! Cell phone signals can’t get through all that concrete! You buy three different kinds, because no way are you going through that maze again.

The Crisis Elevator: It’s 9/11, or Katrina, or Sandy, or any other terrible event. Everyone’s trying to call their loved ones at once to see if they’re o.k. But too many people want to know, so everyone is blocked, and a crisis is made 100 times worse.

The Vanishing Vacationer: You’re out of town on some lovely holiday you’ve planned and saved for. The quaint villages! The scenery! The amazing food! The smiles on your loved ones’ faces! You want to Instagram everything, but your budget did not include the sort of fees you’d pay to make your cell phone work here (if it’s even possible). You’ll have to post everything once you get home, and just hope your family back home can send an email if there’s an emergency.

Boo-hoo, right? But I’m paying for this!

I was most struck recently when GoDaddy had a service outage and credited its entire customer base for a month’s worth of hosting fees. I don’t even know if my web sites were affected, but they made it right for everyone.

But try explaining to T-Mobile or Sprint why they should give you a partial credit for the month when you were out of town and couldn’t get service; or even just five bucks off to make up for your annoyance and that time you had to call home from a payphone because AT&T doesn’t have coverage at Trask Mountain. And even better luck if (for instance) you want to get out of your contract because you’ve moved to an area with subpar coverage.

Industry consolidation is leading to even less choice and, as a result, less recourse if you don’t like the services you’re getting. I heard an interview on NPR a few weeks ago about how some European countries had nationalized internet or mobile services — turning them into utilities, just like water and electricity.

The writer David Cay Johnston, who wrote the salaciously-titled book, The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind, said he thought the U.S. should do that, too — in fact, it was the only way to compete in a globally connected world.

Socialism or survival?

It’s not just staying internationally relevant that might make us want to revolt for more value for our $50 or $75 or $100 a month mobile packages. It’s survival. Specifically, the ability to stay connected in a crisis. Hurricane Sandy had a lot of industry analysts very concerned about what might happen as climate change brings down increasingly unpredictable and catastrophic storms.

If wireless communications go down in a storm — especially with so many people relying completely on their mobile phones, and emergency responders on mobile networks — many could be left without vital communications.

Usually I have the answer — not this time

Most of the posts I write are yin yang, here’s a problem and here’s the solution. But I don’t have that easy answer for this one. From what I’ve heard from David Cay Johnston, I think nationalization of more of our communications networks might be the way to go, both from a “homeland security” and a cost-limiting basis.

Why are the users paying for both the investment in infrastructure we all need, and profits for the cellular companies? Isn’t this a case of public good? Or is the answer simply, “demand better”? Should we organize as consumers and insist on better treatment from our providers; a better match between service that we receive (not the service theoretically available) and the service we pay for? What would you do?

5 Responses to “Do You Deserve Better from Your Cell Phone Company?”

  1. Anonymous

    There is no monopoly here, so whatever the solution involves, it shouldn’t be government based (nationalized). Cell phones aren’t like other utilities where local monopolies are granted (and heavily regulated) to prevent, for example, 10 different water companies from competing and laying pipe to every house in a neighborhood.

    I think what we have today is sufficient. Private companies install cell-towers to cover areas/customers they want. Private carriers also have agreements to allow other companies’ customers to ‘roam’ on each others towers (for a price). Each of these companies publish maps showing their coverage area.

    If you decide to travel outside of that coverage area, it isn’t your provider’s problem. You always have the choice of choosing a different provider that has the coverage you want/need. Now, if you aren’t getting service and are within the published coverage area, then you have a point and could demand refund.

    If you are a wilderness traveller, there is the option of purchasing a satellite phone. The USA is a very big place, and it doesn’t make sense to spend tax-payer dollars (government funded) to build up a cell-phone infrastructure where private business has already deemed it not profitable to cover.

  2. Anonymous

    I just signed up for Republic Wireless…piggybacks off of Sprint’s towers but offers free roaming in the continental US and access to all features through wi-fi anywhere in the world. $19 per line plus taxes for unlimited voice, text and data. Still won’t fix all the above problems, but at least it’s a reasonable price.

  3. Anonymous

    It’s always Murphy’s Law, too – it never works when you absolutely need it to. Unfortunately, the affordable plans are also with companies that don’t have that great of coverage. There really is no answer to this conundrum; we need cell phones, so we put up with it.

  4. Anonymous

    Oh, cell phone companies. I heard the same NPR interview as you and I work with many people that reside in an office in the UK. They think most of us are crazy for spending so much on cell service and having to deal with the issues.

    While these companies don’t have “monopolies” by the book definition, they really are. They don’t have to worry about too much competition and if they come around, they just buy them out. This allows them to control every aspect of our mobile communications and charging us whatever they want.

  5. Anonymous

    It should be a matter of national security for people to have access to their cell phones. I’m not in favor the government controlling the cell phone industry, but the cell phone companies should increase the quality of phone reception in rural areas and add more towers in urban areas. I would be willing to pay more if I had access just about anywhere. Even in my populated city, my reception dies out when I go into some stores in the mall. That’s ridiculous.

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